Boris Johnson is London’s first cycling Mayor and he has put a ‘cycling revolution’ at the heart of his programme of government. As well as the Cycle Hire Scheme, Mayor Johnson has announced plans for what he has dubbed ‘cycle superhighways’. There will be twelve superhighways, each offering “safe, fast, direct routes to central London from the outer boroughs”. But there are growing concerns that the plans are being watered down.
Back in June of this year Mayor Johnson said,
“I’m not kidding when I say that I’m militant about cycling, and these Superhighways are central to the cycling revolution I’m determined to bring about. No longer will pedal power have to dance and dodge around petrol power – on these routes the bicycle will dominate and that will be clear to all others using them”.
Am I alone in thinking that the semantics are all wrong? As well as being a long-time London cyclist, Mayor Johnson is a talented wordsmith and I would expect better. I prefer Bicycle Boulevard to Cycle Superhighway. I love to ride a bicycle but am no ‘militant’ nor do I take to the roads seeking to ‘dominate’ anyone. I’m all too aware of the inherent vulnerability of riding a bicycle yet also of the civilising effect of cycling on street life. When I ride it’s with thoughts of sharing and negotiating space, rolling with ease, elegance, kindness and an awareness that there are a lot of other people around, each on his or her own journey, by whatever means.
As every cyclist knows, the genius of the bicycle is that it makes the most efficient use of human power, takes up very little space and can go almost anywhere – on roads, walking through pedestrianised areas, on trains and on boats (though not yet on buses). As well as giving cyclists a chance to relax and moment free from the fear of imminent death under the wheels of a lorry, a good cycle lane should exert a profoundly calming effect on its immediate surroundings – less noise and pollution than on a a car-filled street: the gentle whirr of turning wheels and the cheery tring of bells. On the bicycle boulevards of my dreams pavement cafés and art galleries, bookshops and bakeries would abound, places to meet, chat, while away an afternoon or summer evening simply enjoying the city (a kind of Jane Jacobs nirvana).
Yet, designated cycle lanes sometimes come in for criticism. New research suggests that drivers may actually pass closer to cyclists riding in (non-segregated) cycle lanes than when the cyclist is riding on a road with no cycle lane. Cycle lanes can also give the impression that cyclists should only ride where there is coloured paint on the ground. An inexperienced cyclist might think the only safe place to ride is a cycle lane; an inconsiderate driver might think that cyclists should stay in the cycle lanes ‘where they belong’. I’ve heard tell of the London Cycle Network Plus , said to be part completed though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. Is it heresy to say that London already has a completed cycle network comprising every street and road in the city?
Back to the superhighways. The London Cycling Campaign has today issued a press release saying:
“It’s high-quality cycle routes not a wash of blue paint that’ll attract occasional cyclists into regular cycle commuting. We’re concerned at a weakening of commitment to such quality on the proposed Cycle Superhighways.”
The LCC doesn’t give any concrete evidence of this ‘weaking of commitment’ but I’ve heard privately from a well-connected source in one of the boroughs of outer London that its transport officials are rubbing their hands with glee at the money that’s being handed out. In the case of this particular borough, it is getting several million pounds from the Mayor to build the cycle superhighways but due to a relaxation of the design rules that will allow boroughs to incorporate existing cycle lane infrastructure into the superhighways, the borough officials reckon the costs will be much less and they’ll be able to pocket the rest of the money for other projects unrelated to cycling. And we all know about the high quality of London’s existing cycle lanes: veritable superhighways to Hell.
As I’ve said, I’ve got a lot of time for good cycle lanes, whether in my more delicious dreams, or in real life, such as those I enjoyed over the summer in Montreal (see images below, courtesy of StreetsBlog.org). The way I see it, it’s not a cycle lane – or a bicycle boulevard or a cycle superhighway or whatever you want to call it – unless there is a physical barrier preventing other vehicles from entering. Anything else, as ‘Buffalo’ Bill Chidley memorably put it on The Bike Show is “just a waste of paint”. Simple as that. And on this measure, London has very, very few real cycle lanes, and it looks as though we should all be lowering our expectations that the Mayor’s cycle superhighways will bring us many more. I hate to end on such a down note so if anyone at TfL is reading this and wants to prove me wrong, nothing would give me greater pleasure.